Gutting Funds for the Arts and Humanities Is Un-American (Guest Column)

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Speaking on behalf of the Writers Guilds of America West and East, we’re appalled by the proposed national budget from the Trump White House. This is a plan that slashes domestic programs (Meals on Wheels?), eviscerates education, kneecaps environmental protection, and devastates the lives of middle and lower income Americans. It is a cynical proposal that is at once cruel, shortsighted, and ill-informed.

But because we write this in the name of more than 12,000 writers and creative voices throughout the United States, we wish especially to express our outrage at this administration’s stated intent to gut – “zero out” — the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The endowments and the IMLS are at the core of what makes our country strong, not in terms of guns and bombs or industrial might, but in the artistic expression and intellectual curiosity that express who we are as a nation: a reading program in Wyoming, a poetry competition in Vermont, an opera house in Colorado, an orchestra in Wisconsin, a writing workshop for veterans in upstate New York, a museum of local African American history in Kansas.

As for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the funding it provides for the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio is an essential contribution, one that helps keep local PBS and NPR stations up and running. These stations are essential to the dissemination of knowledge: informing and entertaining with superb science, arts, history and children’s shows. What’s more, CPB-funded documentary and public affairs programming make public media one of the few remaining independent voices in broadcast journalism, essential to the full and open public discourse upon which a true democracy depends.

Together, these government programs amount to just two one-hundredths of one percent of the total budget. In fact, the annual cost to taxpayers for the two national endowments is $35 million less than the cost of providing security for Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan.

As Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott notes, “These cuts aren’t about cost savings — they’re far too small to make even a ding in the federal budget. They are carefully calculated attacks on communities, especially those that promote independent thinking and expression, or didn’t line up behind the Trump movement as it swept to power through the Electoral College in November. But the president’s proposed budget also includes attacks on communities that did indeed support Trump but that are too powerless to resist.”

Rural areas would be especially hard hit, with budgets eliminated for arts programs that have revitalized local economies and preserved regional history and folklore. These federally funded organizations are far more than providers of grants for struggling artists and scholars; they keep alive traditions of creativity essential to the nation.

We need our storytellers. “Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much,” President John F. Kennedy said in 1963, less than a month before his assassination. “The nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”

Together, our two unions call on Congress to reject these proposed cuts. If not, the House, Senate and Donald Trump will be turning their backs on the foundations of culture and knowledge that truly make America great.  They will be choosing to tear down much that is worthy to build, in its place, a society rooted in prejudice, fear, and ignorance.

Howard Rodman is president of the Writers Guild of America West. Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America East.